Amazon Fire TV review

Amazon is an interesting company. It's an online retail giant. It's an ebook king. It wants to be a bit of everything. And now thanks to Amazon Fire TV - and, more recently, the Fire Phone - it's a hardware company too.

There's a lot going on with Fire TV. The company's first foray into the set-top box market is more than just that: it also happens to be a shot at the console market, and we were more than interested in seeing how that dual-tongued approach worked out.

For now Amazon's strategy is to focus on the USA. Since the launch of Fire TV Pocket-lint has been living with the set-top box Stateside as there's still no confirmation or release date for a UK system. But we anticipate it will arrive on this side of the pond in the future, so to our curious UK and knowledge-hungry US readers, is the Fire TV the one-stop-shop media device you've been dreaming about? Indeed, is Amazon a company on fire right now?

Setup

First thing's first: You need an Amazon account to access anything on the Amazon Fire TV. You also need an internet connection (either wireless or wired).

The Amazon Fire TV is compatible with most high-definition televisions via HDMI, although an HDMI cable is not included in the box so you'll need to grab an extra cable. Amazon only provides the actual set-top box as well as a power cord and a wireless remote with two AAA batteries - the Fire Game Controller shown in our lead picture is sold separately, priced $40.

Once you get everything hooked up and online, Amazon will encourage you to sign up for Amazon Prime Instant. However, this is not required - so feel free to play around as an average Amazon customer before agreeing to an annual subscription fee. The set-top box will then search for its compatible remote and a Wi-Fi connection. If all that is in order, Amazon will start piping the latest software update to the box.

The next step features a brief animated video that will automatically play. It tries to help even the most beginner of streaming users learn their way around a set-top box. It gives a brief overview of the Fire TV's interface and the many types of things you could buy, download, play, or stream. After the video concludes, you are free to set up any parental controls - such as a PIN to stop the kids from accidentally (or purposefully) running up your bill - and then browse away.

Design

The Fire TV is a thin square box that's finished in matte black. All its ports - power, HDMI, optical audio, Ethernet, and USB - are positioned to its rear, while a glossy Amazon logo graces the top.

The accompanied rounded remote is suitably tiny and mostly matte black, bar for glossy buttons. As for the Fire Game Controller, should you buy one as an extra, it has a layout similar to an OnLive controller and an angular and matte-black design with glossy controls.

You likely won't have to rearrange your AV stack or the oodles of hardware beneath your television just to use the Fire TV, because it's small enough to fit in and looks pretty slick. Nothing is big or bulky - and everything has a rather cutting-edge and sleek appearance that'll surely complement most home cinema setups.

Our only warning: it's a right fingerprint magnet, especially on the top, which can drive you mad. Especially if you need to take photos of it.

Interface

After you've gone through the introductory process of getting started with your Fire TV, you will see a main screen every time you turn on the set-top box. The main screen's user-interface is very Kindle Fire-esque and has categories on the left-hand side for Search, Home, Movies, TV, Watchlist, Video Library, Games, Apps, Photos, Settings, and FreeTime. We naturally navigated to Home, Movies, Games, and Apps during our testing as that best matches our interests.

Starting with Home, it allows you review content recommendations and recent activity. Movies does what you would expect: provides access to the movie section on the Amazon Instant Video store. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can watch most Prime Instant Video movies at no extra cost. All Prime Instant content is earmarked by a little flag. Similarly, TV provides access to the TV section on the Amazon Instant Video store and features premium content for Prime members.

The Watchlist is a list of the movies and TV shows you have saved for later, naturally, whereas the Video Library includes all of your Cloud Drive-stored content you have purchased or are currently renting. As for the Games and Apps sections on the main screen - which let you respectively find, buy, and play games or apps from the Amazon App Store - we'll touch on those in more detail later.

Photos and Settings are both self-explanatory: Photos gives access to your photos and videos stored in the Amazon Cloud Drive and you can also start photo slideshow with photos or even set individual photos as screen savers. Settings is the portal to view and manage your Amazon Fire TV apps, controllers, parental controls, Internet connection, and more.

Going back to content, you'll notice that clicking on a movie or TV episode title brings up an option to view the trailer - or you can just rent, buy, or stream right away. The Fire TV is also choc-full of cool features for content. It includes access to Amazon's X-ray service, for instance, which allows users to pull up IMDB info within a video stream (like an actor's name and credit history). The Fire TV also includes access to Amazon's new music service, Prime Music.

Everything is pretty straightforward. We found the interface simple to navigate and use for the most part. Nothing lagged or froze. And that made us very happy.

Apps

Amazon doesn't have a lot of Fire TV apps to start with, but it has promised more are on the way.

A few of the more notable apps currently available include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Watch ESPN, Crackle, Bloomberg TV, Pandora, Vevo, iHeart Radio and more. These apps look and function much like their counterparts found on the Apple TV or Roku, as Amazon allows each provider to design and develop their own app interface.

READ: Roku Streaming Stick review

In other words, while app interfaces mostly appear sleek and uniform right now, developers have free reign and could make the underlying Fire TV experience look messy or not very user-friendly in the future. But that would be the epitome of bad design - something most companies will look to avoid.

Now, on to movies. You probably bought the Fire TV to watch them and are wondering what apps are available. You'll of course have the ones mentioned earlier as well as access to the Amazon Prime Instant app. It has a mammoth catalogue of new and classic titles. As for premium television consumption, there's also a Showtime Anytime app now available and an HBO Go app in the works for later this year.

FreeTime

FreeTime is the most family-friendly feature within Fire TV. It's a dedicated spot for children and looks completely different from the main screen interface. Unfortunately, the limited roll-out of FreeTime just is in its infancy. You will likely get the feature through an upcoming wider roll-out (as it's an automatic update), but we haven't received ours just yet. We therefore can't tell you much about FreeTime, other than what Amazon told us.

Similar to the Kindle FreeTime feature that comes with Amazon's line of Kindle Fire tablet, FreeTime will allow parents to setup profiles for up to four children. The profiles will have a blue background, profile name, avatar, and so forth. Amazon described this design as "kid friendly." Parents can "whitelist" content into FreeTime and designate time limits, while children can't get out of their FreeTime area without entering a parent-set password. Nifty, right?

Amazon said it would also offer FreeTime Unlimited, a package deal that includes parental controls and premium content like books, games, educational apps, movies, and TV shows from companies like Disney and Nickelodeon designed for young kids. It will cost Amazon Prime members an extra $2.99 a month for one child or $6.99 a month for up to four children. Non-Prime subscribers could pay $4.99 or $9.99, respectively, for the same service.

Games and the Fire Game Controller

Like apps, there aren't too many games available for Fire TV at launch. We found ourselves playing Badland and Deer Hunter 2014 the most. While the first game, a sidescroller that's wonderfully designed, was fun to play, we became super frustrated by the latter video game. It's your usual hunting game (if there are enough out there to derive a norm), but it constantly locked up and required too many in-app purchases. Don't fret though, Amazon has said it will bring a lot more games to the table soon.

Specifically, Amazon promised support for thousands of games from big publishers including Disney Interactive, EA, Halfbrick and more. It also has an in-house gaming arm called Amazon Games Studios developing original Amazon games. The first game, called SEV Zero, is already out. It's a tower-defence shooter with a multi-player mode. We thought SEV Zero looked pretty cool at first blush.

All video games work with a Bluetooth-enabled game controller called the Fire Game Controller which we found very responsive and easy to use - just like a controller should be. No promises you won't get gamer's thumb with it, as there aren't too many games for Fire TV thus far it's not the thing we've spent most our time doing.

Search and the remote

The potentially coolest feature within Fire TV is voice search, which requires the Fire TV remote to operate. The remote has a built-in mic, and you can use that mic to voice-sift through Prime Instant Video, Vevo, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Showtime. Just press and hold the search button on the Fire TV remote, then speak a query, and Amazon will serve up related results. You can voice search for an actor's name or titles and genres to browse over 200,000 movies available on Fire TV.

Voice search worked impressively fast whenever we looked for a specific movie too. It's an effective way to find movies and shows but, unfortunately, the feature only supports a few services right now. If you want to search popular services like Netflix, you must manually enter your query by scrolling through a carousel and punching every letter with your controller. It's quite tedious. However, Netflix promises voice search is coming "later this year".

The Fire TV is a powerful streaming box, with its quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and a dedicated GPU. In fact, Amazon claimed the Fire TV is three times more powerful than a Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV. Or as powerful as all three combined we suppose. You should therefore have no issues when voice browsing, playing videos, and gaming in 1080p - we certainly didn't.

READ: Google Chromecast review

Price and availability

Americans can purchase an Amazon Fire TV and remote for $99. For everyone else though, including those living in the UK and Europe, it's a case of playing the waiting game. Amazon has initially limited the release of Fire TV to consumers just like it has done with previous hardware products, but that doesn't mean Brits won't ever get their hands on Amazon's new set-top box.

An Amazon representative told Pocket-lint that Fire TV will eventually land outside of the US, though the company wouldn't provide an exact date. When asked about global availability, Amazon only said: "Fire TV will release globally." Keep in mind however that the Kindle Fire unveiled in the US in November 2011 but didn't release actually in the UK until September 2012.

We'll update this review with a native UK product as and when it happens.

Verdict

We rather liked Amazon Fire TV. At least, we did at first. But here's the thing: it might be a little too late to the game. And that's before it even expands outside of the USA.

When we first received the set-top box, it became our go-to device for watching movies and television... for about three weeks. Once we got over the thrill of toggling between movies and video games, without having to switch inputs or devices, the lustre of Fire TV wore off.

Flinging content from our devices to TV via Chromecast suits our needs just fine. Amazon's take is a more integrated experience with Prime, but if you're not a Prime customer then that might limit your interest from the off. The tediousness of manually searching on Netflix made us eventually revert back to trusty 'ole Apple TV because that offers the easy-to-use Remote app for iPhone - and it's simple things like that which make all the difference. 

Once we unplugged the Fire TV, we never found a truly compelling reason to hook it back up. Despite all its bells and whistles and content, Fire TV could do with some more oomph to compete with well-established rivals. It could get there in the near future, of course, as more is promised. But that's not the here and now.

While the fate of Fire TV is still to be decided, we can confirm Amazon has tried. Like, really tried. Fire TV is pretty, powerful and has cool software tricks and impressive voice capabilities. Add tonnes of great apps and games from the off with more coming soon and, if you've not already jumped aboard the set-top box ship, then it's an appealing prospect, hence its score. What more could anyone want? The devil is in the detail.